MARCH 12, 2010—Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan judicial reform group, hailed today’s West Virginia Senate vote to publicly finance state Supreme Court elections. “Today’s vote is a major victory, and it adds to a rising national call for reform,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director. “The people of West Virginia strongly support this bill. They want judges out of the ‘dialing-for-dollars’ game.”
When the bill is signed by Gov. Joe Manchin, who has endorsed it, West Virginia will become the fourth state nationally to publicly finance high court elections, and the second to do so since December. Other states using public financing are North Carolina (enacted in 2002); New Mexico (2007); and Wisconsin (2009).
“Public financing gives voters more choices, and it preserves impartial courts, because it allows qualified judicial candidates to run without having to solicit money,” Brandenburg said. “But candidates must have enough funding to run viable campaigns. This is especially true because of the Citizens United ruling, which will allow unprecedented levels of special-interest spending.”
On Monday, a poll released by Justice at Stake and the Committee for Economic Development showed strong public support for public financing, as well as lingering public memories about West Virginia’s money-soaked high-court election of 2004, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court case and extensive negative national publicity.
According to the poll, 52 percent of West Virginia voters supported public financing of high court elections. After a brief mention of the 2004 election, in which coal executive Don Blankenship spent $3 million to elect Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin, support for public financing rose to 61 percent, with only 30 percent opposing.
Similarly, 68 percent said it was a “serious problem” that elected judges received contributions from those who appear before them in court. After being reminded of Blankenship’s expenditures in 2004, that number spiked to 89 percent. The election plunged the state court into controversy, and in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Caperton v. Massey that Justice Benjamin should not hear a case involving Blankenship.
“The public overwhelmingly believes everyone should have a fair day in court, and they don’t trust that the system is fair when one team can hire the umpire,” Brandenburg said. “Under public financing, people decide who sits on the court, not special-interest money. That’s why it has broad, bipartisan public support.”
West Virginia would use public financing on a pilot basis for two Supreme Court seats up for election in 2012. The plan grew out of a judicial-reform commission appointed by Manchin, whose honorary co-chair was former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The West Virginia House previously approved public-financing legislation.
Brandenburg noted that the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes West Virginia, already has unanimously upheld North Carolina’s public financing law as constitutional. Moreover, he said, the North Carolina system has enjoyed strong candidate participation and widespread public support, according to polls taken after the system was enacted.
The Justice at Stake-Committee for Economic Development poll was conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research, which surveyed 600 West Virginia voters, with a margin of error of 4 percent. For further poll results, see this Justice at Stake press release.
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The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national partners educate the public, and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can protect our Constitution, our rights and the Rule of law. For more about Justice at Stake, go to www.justiceatstake.org, or www.gavelgrab.org.